Widdershins

A curiosity arrives from my brother (and Electric Ferry Press author), Roy Johannesen. A photo from the archives of Bergens Tidende.

A Norwegian electric ferry. I try to imagine wires stretched across the harbour and poles or a pantograph on the boat scraping along them. But no, they had batteries, of course, and ways of recharging them, already in the nineteenth century. This ferry company, Bergens Elektriske Færgeselskab, I read, lasted for a hundred years.

One thing leads to another. Here a picture of the 69th Street terminal for our electric ferry, which ran from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to St. George on Staten Island before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge shut it down.

The gantry above the vehicle ramp advertises ‘short route to New Jersey.’ A dubious claim—leaving aside the question of why one would want to go to New Jersey—but it stirs a memory of an epic bike ride.

Walter Madsen, Tom Titland and me—we three about the same age, 12 or 13—and Walter’s older brother Stanley. I haven’t any idea who thought it up. We set off one morning with no other plan than to circle New York Harbour on bikes. Bay Ridge, where we all lived, to the 69th Street terminal. Staten Island electric ferry to St George. Along the Kill Van Kull to Port Richmond. Bayonne Bridge to New Jersey. After which the most dreary stretch imaginable. Glare and gasoline fumes, mile after mile. Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, West New York, all uphill, to Fort Lee and the foot of the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan.

I pause in this recitation to note that our bikes were old and clunky one-speed affairs of dodgy patched-up tires and coaster brakes, that we would not have had any money, nor made provision for food, or anything else, that we had no maps, and that we lived in households without cars or telephones, and so could neither call on nor expect any help.

Manhattan was a relief. We flew pell-mell down Amsterdam Avenue in the settling dusk. I draw a blank then until Chinatown and The Manhattan Bridge, forbidding and creepy in the dark like a Batman movie set.

Back in Brooklyn. Atlantic Avenue, Fourth Avenue. Uphill again, the most sheerly agonising leg of the whole trip, and collapse into the hallway at home, sometime around midnight.

Like most memories from childhood, this one has no sequel, no context, no lesson, no consequence. Unless it was a kind of dry run or fledgling flight for Walter and me, who ran away from home together the next year. Or that sometime afterwards, my brother Roy essayed this same journey with Frankie Dahl, but backwards, Manhattan Bridge first, the electric ferry last. Roy had a spill on Fourth Avenue and did the bulk of the trip with a sprained wrist. I judge that he got off lucky, for, as everyone knows, going round widdershins, or counterclockwise, is—like whistling indoors or leaving shoes on a table—the crack that invites the devil.